A new BTEC qualification scores points with pupils and maths teachers. Judith Judd checks out the multiple advantages, including the chance to improve standards
Take a Premier League football team and then compare it with a Championship League team. What is the average number of goals scored? How long does it take to score the goals and what profits are the two teams making from their merchandise?
This is the sort of problem that is being used to persuade pupils to see the point of maths in a new qualification being piloted in 52 schools by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust and exam board Edexcel.
The BTEC award in mathematical applications aims to equip pupils for future work, further study or everyday life.
Though it is not meant to replace GCSE, it has been devised for those who may find the traditional exam is unsuitable.
Natasha Cowan, an advanced skills teacher, and one of the course's authors, has no doubt that it is motivating her Year 9s at Wildern Secondary School in Southampton. "We are trying to show them how maths is part of their everyday lives," she says. "For teachers, the challenge is to think out of the box and solve the problem of how you apply maths."
Teachers design the assignments, which last two or three weeks, with the help of their pupils and then assess them. There is no final exam. Instead, pupils present a portfolio at the end of the year.
The course teaches the same skills as GCSE by applying them to sport, travel and engineering. It has obvious appeal for those who are disenchanted with maths but it is for all abilities: a more advanced problem might compare the legroom in different classes of seat on an aircraft. Part of the work should take place outside the classroom, perhaps timing each other on the running track or visiting a theme park to look specifically at the behaviour of tourists.
The pilot is the latest attempt to improve maths standards. In 2006, schools had to include English and maths for the first time in the five A*C score on which league tables are based. The result was a drop of around 10 percentage points in the proportion of pupils getting five grades at C or above, with maths the main culprit.
Just over 50 per cent of candidates get a C or better in the subject.
"Arguably we are failing half the students," says Graham Corbyn, head of achievement networks at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust.
"If you had the best maths teachers and resources using the current GCSE curriculum you could only improve by 10 per cent. A radical overhaul is needed."
The pilot, which began in September, has yet to be assessed but teachers' reports suggest that it is proving popular.
"BTEC is cool," one pupil says. Such approval for mathematics - a much- beleaguered subject at the best of times - must be welcome.
For more information on the BTEC award in mathematical applications, email Btecmaths@edexcel.org.uk.